The Monolith of 2001: A Space Odyssey is one of the most cryptic icons in all of pop culture. Back in the heat of the cultural conversation about the film, moviegoers wanting to crack the secrets of those sleek alien obelisks concerned themselves with many questions about their motive and influence. Do they mean to harm humanity or improve us? Do those who dare engage them flourish and prosper? Or do they digress and regress? To rephrase in the lexicon of Mad Men: Are these catalysts for evolutionary change subversive manipulators like Lou, advancing Peggy with responsibility and money just to trigger Don’s implosion, or are they benevolent fixers like Freddy, rescuing Don from self-destruction and nudging him forward with helpful life coaching?

Of course, Don Draper is something of a Monolith himself. The questions people once asked of those mercurial monuments are similar to the questions that the partners and employees of Sterling Cooper & Partners (and the audience) are currently asking of their former fearless leader during the final season of Mad Men, which last week fielded an episode entitled “The Monolith” rich with allusions to Stanley Kubrick’s future-fretting sci-fi stunner. Don, that one-time font of creative genius, is now a mystery of motives and meaning to his peeps following last season’s apocalyptic meltdown during the Hershey pitch. (For Don, Hershey Bars are Monoliths, dark rectangular totems with magical character-changing properties.)

Watching them wring their hands over Don evokes the way the ape-men of 2001 frantically tizzied over The Monolith when it suddenly appeared outside their cavern homes. Can Don be trusted? Do they dare let him work? What does he really want? “Why are you here?” quizzed Bert during a shoeless interrogation in his man-cave. Gloomy Lou made like Chicken Little: “He’s gonna implode!” (His pessimism wasn’t without bias: He did take Don’s old job.)

There are knowing, deeper ironies here. The in-show twittering over Don sounds a lot like our tweety bleatings about the direction and final destination of Mad Men’s iconic representation of flawed, retrograde mid-century manhood. And working the 2001 angle, our skeptical wonderings about Don — can his “broken vessel” be repaired or is he hard-wired for destruction? — echoes the skeptical leanings of Kubrick in general and the philosophical questions about humanity’s fate posed by 2001 specifically. The Monolith — a silent sentinel of inscrutable intent and incalculable effect, and no guarantor of moral refinement — was visually referenced in “The Monolith” in the form of the black elevators doors.* We ask: Which way is Don going? Is he on the up-and-up about his onward and upward? Or is another descent into the Inferno inevitable?

*2001 was released about a year before the events of “The Monolith.” While it may have seemed lime a behind-the-times reference, consider that the movie had been a cultural phenomenon that played in theaters for months and that its icons had quickly and deeply penetrated the public consciousness — especially those moviegoers who watched it stoned. None of the characters in Mad Men directly referenced the movie. But it must have been top of mind and in their heads all the same. Where we saw a Monolith in those elevator doors, so did Don.

2001’s other famous non-human character, the HAL 9000 super-computer, was also represented in “The Monolith” via SC&P’s IBM 360, a monstrous (size-wise) and powerful tool that no one in the agency understands and most everyone fears will render them obsolete. The computer’s value to the company is currently TBD; for now, it exists mostly for show, to impress the clients. This, too, is another metaphor for how Don’s colleagues feel about him. Asset or albatross? How to use him? Do they dare live without him? As they wait for answers, they keep him contained but on display, as his creative reputation is a clear benefit — he’s window dressing. And so he lounges and waits for action, just like 2001 astronauts Poole and Bowman, killing time en route to Jupiter with games and processed food.

HAL can correlate with Mad Men in many different ways. But the theme that strikes me as most relevant to the final season of the series is about how we recover from catastrophic mistakes and how we respond to those who’ve committed catastrophic mistakes. In 2001, HAL — responsible for managing the life support systems of the spaceship Discovery One — is vaunted as “foolproof” and “incapable of error.” We are introduced to the near-sentient machine — which has more personality than his astronaut charges — as it’s giving a TV interview to the BBC. HAL is the Don of old — the celebrity wunderkind; the agency’s meal ticket. But then HAL messes up. The super-computer diagnoses a problem that turns out to not be a problem at all, or at least, not yet. HAL is baffled by the mistake — and can’t quite confess to making one. It attributes the mistake to his men who made him. “Human error.” (Such a blame-shifter!)

HAL suggests that Bowman and Poole allow Discovery’s allegedly buggy antennae continue working until it doesn’t, at which time they’ll all know better how to fix it. (Shades of Jim Cutler’s solution to the Don problem: Get some productivity out of him until he crashes.) Bowman and Poole agree, but privately, they resolve to deactivate HAL if it continues to act erratically. HAL — eavesdropping on the conversation by reading their lips — doesn’t like the sound of this and responds in a most destructive way that only affirms the worst assumptions of its character.

This was Don in “The Monolith.” Already chaffing from the severe rules of his reinstatement — a program for atonement as well as protocols designed to prevent further failure — Don was further burned by being made to work for Peggy on the pitch. Sure, there was chauvinism there. Subordinate myself to my former secretary? A woman?! How humiliating! But Don also saw it for what it was: A conspiracy against him. His petulant protest — sabotaging the Burger Chef mission by simply refusing to provide his services — was both blame-shift (truth is, he brought all of this on himself) and confirmed the suspicions about him. He snapped as HAL snapped, but — and here, Don deviates meaningfully from the HAL metaphor — he stops short of implosion, and in fact, reverses course, thanks to the influence of Freddy “The Monolith” Rumsen, who exhorts Don to humble himself, and who suggest that his best form of defiance would be to give the agency his best work and the best version of himself. Thus Spake Zarathustra! And so Don’s returned to SC&P the next day a reluctantly evolved yet nonetheless born again creature. Cue the Strauss and behold! It’s Don Draper, the Star-Child!

2001: A Space Odyssey endures as both a classic film and a worldview Rorschach test. Some watch it and see an optimistic forecast for humanity. Look at us exploring and expanding our potential in our never-ending quest for a better life! Some watch it and see a pessimistic forecast. Look at us dehumanizing if not destroying ourselves with our tools in our never-ending struggle for an easier life! What Lloyd The Computer Guy said about the gamut of reactions to the computer can be said of 2001: It can take on the meaning of whatever’s on our minds at the time.

The ways in which Mad Men alluded to The Monolith, HAL and other ideas and elements in 2001 reminds us of how the show utilizes cultural and historical references to generate irony or dread or both. In this way, the show can be Kubrickian. And was the way with the great director, it’s sometimes hard to know if Mad Men is being meaningful or impish with the practice. We might also question whether it’s manipulative, too. In the season 6 finale and the season 7 premiere, both of which hit hard Don’s self-loathing and skepticism about redemption, the storytelling linked the identity thief formerly known as Dick Whitman with another Tricky Dick, Richard Nixon, the newly elected president of Mad Men ‘69. Now that’s an ominous association. No wonder we worry if Don is a sinking ship of a man who’ll take everyone down with him!

Indeed, Mad Men’s tendency to play these references as harbingers of doom is becoming rather conspicuous, even ridiculous. Sometimes they feel like jokes, but is the joke on the characters, or on us, or both? In “The Monolith,” there was a moment in which Roger and Mona are deciding to liberate Margaret/Marigold from the commune. The shot puts Mona on one side of the screen and Roger on the other as he’s telling her everything’s going to be okay. A third character of sorts lurks in the background, occupying the space between the, smack in the middle of the shot: It’s the Seymour Chwast “Dante’s Inferno” print that has hung on Roger’s wall since last season. (Check out Time’s magazine’s recent fantastic cover package on Mad Men for more insight.) The poster ironically commented on how these two characters must have viewed their mission: It’s a descent into hell to rescue their self-imprisoned Persephone. Yet like the Nixon play, the poster is also a manipulative device. It functions as a cruel heckler spitting on Roger’s wishful thinking. Everything’s going to be all right?! Yeah, right. This ain’t going to end well!

Might Mad Men be playing these games for the purpose of commenting on our own cynicism? It’s the only way I can make sense of the perceived, supposed yet hard-to-deny linking of Megan to Charles Manson. The common theory is that Mad Men is foreshadowing her death. To me, it feels like mean teasing, the show as Bad Monolith, seeding awful ideas, just to make us make us feel bad and judge us for buying into them. You really thought we were going to sic Manson on Megan? Wow! What does that say about you, creepy little viewer? Personally, I’d like to think that Mad Men ironically fulfilled the Manson-Megan prophecy in the third episode of this season when Don dropped by unannounced (think: a home invasion) and broke her heart (think, um, death). I want to believe this, because I don’t want Megan to get slaughtered, and more, I want Mad Men to stop with this Manson nonsense. It’s gross.

For all of Mad Men’s bleak omens, the season so far has been surprisingly optimistic, albeit in a careful, nuanced way. The stories have grappled with the legacy of profound mistakes and the terms and conditions of forgiveness. The show seems to be taking the concept of redemption seriously while asking reasonable questions about how it works. Even the bleaker bits offer potential for hope. Don blundered with “saving” Megan, Roger blundered with “saving” Marigold. Both walked away from their arrogant, misguided rescue missions chastened, both seemed recognize the scolds and judgments against them. That’s progress. For these guys, for anyone who makes bad mistakes. Hopefully they can build on that. How I loved the second episode, when Sally showed her father that the only way they can have a meaningful relationship is if he’s willing to be transparent about his character, willing to share his s–t with her. When he did, she rewarded him with words I don’t think Don ever expected to hear from her. “I love you, Dad. Happy Valentine’s Day.”

At present, Don is not on another downward spiral. He’s on a shaky upward trajectory, like a plane trying to climb through turbulence. Sure, he lost altitude in “The Monolith” — huge demerits for the ugly anti-Peggy chauvinism! And then there was the drinking — but he rebounded and recovered his personal rehab arc. This is not Nixon on the rise, barreling toward constitutional crisis and calamity. This is post-folly Nixon, the tarnished, chastened icon, campaigning for forgiveness. (In this one regard, Don is actually ahead of his times.) Nixon’s symbolic function, then, is to remind us that some mistakes are hard to live down and correct, and even harder to pardon.

In my review of Mad Men at the start of the season, I wondered if Don Draper can find redemption. What I wonder now is how fans might react if Mad Men actually gives it to him. Such optimism might not work for those who want Mad Men to be an allegory for how sixties disillusionment, that explains the malaise and cynicism that came after it. And that, kids, is how white guys ruined everything, and when everything started to spiral downward, and why no one believes in anything anymore. Such a story would seem to demand a dark arc for Don. Basically: American Horror Story: Asylum, minus the aliens and the nuns, with Don as Satan and serial killers only in the subtext. But haven’t we seen this story enough times already? How useful is it to keep peddling it, to keep consuming it? Instead of being another allegory for What The Sixties Did To Us, Mad Men could be a story about letting go of that bitter story by emphasizing themes of grace and forgiveness. To borrow from Don: Maybe it’s time to change the conversation about that cultural narrative.

The optimism we’ve seen so far has come as a surprise to some, judging from the recaps I’ve read.. After all, Mad Men is the work of Matthew Weiner, who cut his teeth on that black-hearted Monolith of this “golden age” of TV, The Sopranos, the sacred text of the anti-hero age, that preached the anti-redemption gospel: People can’t, don’t, won’t change. I loved The Sopranos — it’s my second favorite show of all time – but I’m less impressed by its tough-minded cynicism about change than most, and less so as I see its dour perspective on human nature become de rigueur. Given the way Mad Men is currently trending, I am considering the possibility that Weiner might be aspiring a story that functions as a corrective or at least a complimentary counter to The Sopranos — yin to The Sopranos yang. But he should be careful, for woe to those who deviate from pessimist chic. As True Detective recently showed us, optimism is a tough sell days. Rust Cohle’s change of nihilistic heart in the final episode felt like a betrayal to some viewers, incredible to others. No, the scripting didn’t help its cause, with all that corny talk of dreamtime reconciliations with dead family and that cliché metaphor of stars breaking up the darkness. The expression of optimism is certainly worthy of harsh critique. But optimism itself? Why the categorical dismissal? Does that mean worldview rehabilitation itself is impossible? That “changes of heart” is for chumps? (The lesson Mad Men should learn from True Detective: You gotta earn the redemption with smart, well-scaled drama, not with a last episode, last act, last scene reflection and speechifying.)

To be clear: I have no idea where Don will land when Mad Men comes to a conclusion next year. I have few strong expectations for the storytelling, with the possible exception of producing The Greatest TV Drama Ever! (No pressure, guys.) Right here, right now, four episodes into the first half of the first half of the final season, I look at Mad Men the way we look at 2001, as a confrontation with my own attitudes about progress and transformation, optimism and pessimism. Things may go south for Don; there’s plenty of time for him to “implode.” But yes, I am hoping for the best for Don — and I am resisting the want for the worst. Why would I want it any other way? Why would you?

2001: A Space Odyssey
  • Movie
  • 139 minutes